By Rashida Mohammed ’19
The widely-known novel Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has recently been eliminated from Pingry’s American Literature curriculum. Additionally, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which was on the book list for World Literature sent out this past summer, was not taught in any of the World Literature periods. This is following what seems to be a rising trend in the United States of removing books from English classrooms. Many complaints about the appropriateness of these texts or those similar often come from black parents (such was the case in The Duluth school district in Minnesota), black students (like those in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania), or the NAACP, which has labeled Huckleberry Finn’s use of the n-word over 200 times as offensive, a stance they’ve held since the 1950s.
In trying to understand these complaints, I thought perhaps that people felt uncomfortable with students reading what they considered to be a problematic piece of literature or were uncomfortable with students and teachers reading derogatory terms in a classroom setting. After some thought, I think that there is a common theme related to all these qualms about reading such books: the inability to embrace discomfort. This idea became better fleshed out after reading an interview with Jocelyn A. Chadwick, President of the National Council of Teachers of English, in which she said, “[Huckleberry Finn] goes where Americans really don’t want to go. We talk about race and racism and acceptance and inclusivity and equity…but we don’t really listen and engage in a real substantive conversation.”
In the past few years Pingry has seen progress on topics of race relations in the form of its affinity groups and Black Student Union. Between these groups and our many advisory meetings, SDLC-hosted events, and leadership trainings, several conversation norms have been impressed onto us as important skills in school and in life. One of these norms is to lean into discomfort. Regardless of why Pingry made the decision to alter the curriculum, I hope that leaning into discomfort doesn’t leave the English classrooms as a skill. I cannot emphasize enough that it is not okay to feel unsafe in a learning environment, but the ability to disagree with and analyze multiple perspectives, even if it’s one that you may find offensive, is vital. I hope every school that removes books like Huckleberry Finn from their curriculum considers this opinion.
Arguing that other works like The Secret Life of Bees and The Lord of the Flies could replace these novels and convey the same sentiment is valid, but we need to be careful with where we draw the line. Living in such a vocally polarized country, we are more grounded in this debate about race now more than ever. So, why not let the discussion start in the classroom?